Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips is a riveting, bucks-up, first-rate verite thriller about a real-world hijacking/hostage drama that happened four years ago. It’s unquestionably well made and an obvious uptick compared to the usual brand of high-seas action flick (i.e., some generic, dumb-ass Bruce Willis or Jason Statham or 1980s Steven Seagal concoction, say). And it does an interesting thing by inserting a slight vein of sympathy or measured compassion (or at the very least avoids a simplistic reading of what happened) by depicting the Somali hijackers as desperate, dirt-poor losers who are entirely outflanked and out of their league when they attempt a takeover of this scale. It’s basically about a team of well-funded, corporate-backed cargo-ship guys supported by the might of the U.S. military vs. four jerkoffs in a motorboat carrying guns.
But Captain Phillips is not quite up to par by the measure of Greengrass’s past works. It’s not as bracing or emotionally affecting as Greengrass’s United 93 or Bloody Sunday, his two previous dramatic recreations of melodramatic real-world events. Nor does it challenge the jolting tone and hardcore immediacy in Zero Dark Thirty, which was/is more gripping and intriguing as far as this sort of thing tends to go.
It’s not the filmmaking chops, which are always excellent with Greengrass at the helm. It’s not the integrity that clearly went into the making of it. It’s the material — the necessary emotional punch and dramatic juice simply aren’t there. I’m not saying Captain Phillips doesn’t cut it. It does and then some, but only as far as the material and those Greengrass moves allow.
The four Somali hijackers (whose leader is portrayed by Somali thesp Barkhad Abdi) are so desperate and so obviously out of their league you almost…actually you do feel sorry for them from the get-go. Saps at sea. And yes, it’s touch and go once they take over Hanks’ cargo ship, and Billy Ray‘s screenplay cleaves to the facts about Captain Phillips’ ordeal…oh, right, I don’t want to spoil. Nobody knows what happened, there is no internet, there is no Wikipedia — the facts behind the Captain Phillips saga in a total mystery as far as the general public is concerned.
To me the bottom line is that good as it is, what happens in Captain Phillips is a relatively familiar or at the very least relatively unsurprising hostage situation that ends with…I don’t want to say for fear of antagonizing the spoiler whiners. It just seems to me that what happens in the film is just (and I’m not being dismissive) stuff that happens. It’s factual and anecdotal, but there’s not much of a theme or river running through it unless you want to count the big corporate guys vs. poor little guys thing.
The Danish film A Hijacking is a stronger piece because it at least has an undercurrent and a point of view, which is that the owners of the ship don’t give a shit about the working-class crew — all they care about is their money and not giving into the kidnappers’ demands. This at least had a theme of some kind. What is the theme of Captain Phillips? That being hijacked is highly traumatic? That the East African coast sea lanes are the new Wild West? That decency and compassion and a certain coolness under pressure in the form of Hanks/Phillips is a good thing to have in a hostage situation? Okay.
I certainly respect the decision to stick to the facts, but that aside there’s no way that any highly paid, corporate-kowtowing screenwriter would have written this story out of whole cloth if he/she had been hired to write a fictional sea-hostage drama. This, to repeat, is what I like about Captain Phillips. I’m just saying that the movie is honorably confined by its commitment to stick to what happened. No embroidery, no sexy flavoring, no Hollywood dialogue.
Captain Phillips reminds or informs or at the very least suggests that ship owners aren’t allowed to carry guns or defend their vessels with any kind of firearms. And that high-pressure hoses are their only means of defense against attackers. As the Somali pirates approached I was saying to myself, “They’re helpless little girls, these tanker guys…British bobbies armed with a nightstick.” It’s insane that ship owners don’t have private security forces on-board in that part of the world. In 2013 movie terms it’s a huge “WHAT?”
What are the three great scenes in this film (per the Howard Hawks rule)? What Captain Phillips has, I feel, are three strong scenes — memorable but not quite great. I don’t want to spoil by describing them but two happen near the end.
To my eyes, Captain Phillips is basically tied with The Green Zone — a decently made Iraq War thriller — as Greengrass’s most muted film. Like that Matt Damon war piece, it’s more about how well it was shot and about Greengrass’s nimble directorial eye than about the “interesting but in a limited way” content or undercurrent.
The acting in Captain Philips is disciplined and rigorous and low-key satisfying. Hanks is very steady and restrained and humanistic — a highly sympathetic actor playing another decent fellow going through a tough episode. Catherine Keener accompanies Hanks to the airport at the beginning (a six- or seven-minute bit) and she gets second billing in the credit roll?